Wrong Direction Farm

Bringing Home the Bin

This place is starting to look like a “real” farm, now that we have our first grain bin.  I bought this bin from a nearby farm, and since I had to move it I was scratching the growing bald spot on my head a bit before arriving at a solution.

I was in the middle of tearing down an older iteration of an eggmobile to build a bigger portable chicken feeder, so I had this sixteen foot trailer conveniently stripped to the frame.  The tires are mismatched and the lights don’t work, but it would suffice for a two mile drive on backroads.

With the bucket loader, I flipped the trailer up against the bin.  Then working from ladders I strapped the bin to the trailer.

Trailer Goes Up

Once all was connected, all I had to do was to chain the trailer to the loader and gently rock it back below the tipping point, unchain it while the trailer rested on the loader, and slowly lower the entire contraption back to ground level.  Going down went flawlessly, and the whole job, travel included, took less than two hours.

Trailer Goes Down

Going back up wasn’t as smooth.  I replaced the 4×6 skids, and my replacements were a few inches longer than the old ones, just enough extra to change the geometry and to make the base of the bin catch behind the trailer when I tried to raise it.  In the end I needed to raise the bin directly with the bucket, which dented it more than I’d prefer.  All the damage is repairable with some hammering and galvanizing paint.

With all our poultry on the farm, we have a three or four different feed rations at any moment.  The pullets get one mix and the old laying hens get another.  The turkeys will have four different feed mixes during their development, while the broilers have a starter and a grower mix (thankfully these overlap with the turkey grower and finisher mixes).  Having the extra bin will help as we need to keep all our feeds dry and stored separately.

I am interested to note that this bin has stood in an unsheltered position since 1999 without any anchoring, other than the friction from the skids sinking a little into the dirt.  Most of that time it has been standing there empty.  Our hilltop is a windswept place, but so was the farm this bin came from.  I guess these things are more stable than they appear to be.  I hope so.  I’d rather not have to stand it up again.

 

Photosynthesis Day

Today was Photosynthesis Day, the first day that green creeps into the grass.  Previously we could find a few shoots of green here and there, but today they developed a noticeable green background.  We continue to freeze every night, but with the warming days the pastures are set to go off.

We enjoyed spending the whole day outside, a little wind whipped, but feeling the warm sun was comfort enough.

Even the farm cat decided to bring her kittens out from her nest in the woodshed to let them soak up some heat.

Cat Carrying Kitten

Chicken Brooder Changes

Our first batch of chicks arrived on the farm last week.  The arrival of the chicks marks the beginning of spring for us, whether the weather agrees or not.  Tonight is the first night in a while with the forecast to be above freezing, so it seems winter is reluctantly releasing its grasp a degree at a time.

We’ve made a few changes to our chicken brooder this season.  The first change was the addition of a simple tool – an infrared temperature gun.  Ours is just a cheap model, but for the first time it allows us to easily measure temperatures.  Chicks need to be hot (about 90 degrees) during their early days.  Especially during this chilly period with nights in the teens and low twenties, having the thermometer has helped us understand which parts of the brooder needed heat lamps.  As a side benefit, the kids discovered that the chicks go crazy for the red laser dot the gun projects.  There were easily able to lead the new chicks to discover the water by just shining laser dots on the waterer.

AJ Checking Temps

AJ checking temperatures under the hover.

The second change was a switch from wood shavings to peat moss.  I’ve read about it but I’ve been reluctant to try it due to cost.  Peat moss has superior absorption properties compared to wood shavings and it controls ammonia better.  I’ll need to continue tracking usage through the season, but I’d hazard a guess that one bale of peat moss will provide more absorption than two equally-sized bales of wood shavings, while providing better air quality.

The third change is also related to keeping the bedding dry.  The main problem we have with wetness comes from leaks and spills from the waterers.   Last year I learned about a relatively inexpensive nipple drinker alternative, shortly after I bought a full set of normal vertical nipple lines.  These drinkers are designed for small game birds, but they work quite well for young chickens.  Each drinker has a cup at the end of the vertical nipple, so spillage is reduced to a minimum.  As long as we can keep all our hose fittings from leaking, I expect this to be a great addition to our setup.

Drinking from Gillis Nipple

The chicks still drink primarily from the valve stem as they would on a normal nipple waterer, but in this setup the last drop never lands on the bedding.

With these changes, we’re optimistic that we can keep improving our process to take better care of our chickens.  Now if we could just get some warm weather so these chickens can get out there and enjoy it…

 

A Good Winter for Rodents and Rabbits

Mice, rats, moles, voles, rabbits.  Nibbling, gnawing destroyers.  This winter was a good one for them.  When the snow piles up, they are able to reach places they otherwise can’t.  All winter long they assiduously work, and now as the snow melts it reveals the scope of their accomplishments.

Two pear trees and all our new blueberries were killed.  Several other trees were damaged, but some of them might survive since the damage doesn’t fully encircle the growth layer.  The rats and mice perforated the lower end of the greenhouse film and destroyed a surprisingly large section of the hens’ winter hoophouse cover.

Pear Sapling

The snow drifted above the tree guard, allowing the mice to kill this young pear sapling.  I assume it was mice because there aren’t any rabbit droppings.

Rabbit Damage Apple

Rabbits were clearly responsible for this, as evidenced by the abundant droppings on the ground.  This particular stripped branch snapped off from snow loading, so I suppose I don’t begrudge the rabbits eating this one.

Shredded Hoop Cover

This is particularly frustrating.  With the snow we had drifts 8 feet high along one side of this hoophouse.  Rats found this a cozy home and destroyed 60 square feet of the canopy.  I might be able to fasten the remaining intact vinyl to the wood inner liner with battens to avoid replacing the entire cover.

Sprocket

Well, cat, do something about it.  The rodents are your department.

Maple Syrup Season

I stopped by Mast family’s farm on my way home this afternoon to restock gallons and quarts of their maple syrup.  Maple season is in full swing, and this spring the sap flow has been tremendous.  For some of their runs they are seeing twice the flow compared to where they were last year.

Their maple syrup has been a popular seller among our customers, so I wanted to give everyone an idea of what things look like on their farm.  I’d normally show a picture of the people producing this food, but the Mast family is Amish, and thus they would prefer not to be photographed (no they don’t believe silly ideas that cameras will steal their souls; it is more of a humility principle).  But they don’t object to me taking pictures of their sugar shack.  During sugaring season days are long: hauling sap, tending the fire, fiddling with the evaporators, bottling syrup, repairing broken plumbing, and trying to keep up with all the normal farm chores, so I try not to take up too much of their time.  They work hard to produce maple syrup (as well as raising beef cattle, wholesaling pumpkins, and operating a metal fabrication and repair shop and a fabric shop all on their farm).  Here’s a brief photographic tribute to the work they do.

Monroe's Gelding

We had to take the buggy out because the lane was too slick for my two wheel drive van.  Hey, some people pay for Amish buggy rides, but I get mine for free.

Tap Spile

Instead of big metal spiles and buckets, maple trees are tapped these days with small diameter spiles and plumbed through tubing networks to bulk tanks at the bottom of slopes.  The smaller drilled holes are easier on the trees.  And nobody misses the work of carrying thousands of buckets of sap by hand!

Maple Tubing

The tubing is self supporting with loops positioned around each end tree.  Forty gallons of sap for each gallon of syrup, one drip at a time.

Maple Lines in Woods

Here is a stand of sugar maple trees (a sugar bush if you want to speak the lingo), with a complicated network of lines.  The Masts need to walk their lines each day when they have heavy, wet snow since sections can get knocked down, buried, and frozen.

Sugar Shack

The sugar shack puffing off clouds of steam as the water evaporates.  The big draft horses that move this wagon are off in the barn taking it easy for the rest of the afternoon.

Maple Firebox

This firebox is about three feet wide and six feet deep.  The family’s relatives down the road run sawmills for their shed-building business so there are always lots of wood scraps available for stoking the fire.  I think they have some system of mixing hardwood and softwood in a sequence, but I couldn’t quite pick up on the pattern of how they were loading wood into the firebox.

Maple Preheater

This is the preheater section to get the sap up from 35-40 degrees to 180-190 degrees.  It is an improvement over the old-fashioned direct heating method because it captures heat from the steam exhaust stack and gives that otherwise lost energy a second go-round through a heat exchanger.

Maple Evaporators

Here is the evaporator section.  All the stainless steel and sanitary fittings are pricey, but they make the entire system much easier to clean than older tin evaporators.  As the syrup progresses to the left, it becomes increasingly concentrated and closer to the point where it becomes…

Finished Syrup

…finished syrup.  It was hard to get a clear shot with all the steam.  From here it is transferred into 55 gallon stainless steel drums for storage.

Daily Samplers

Each day they bottle a small sample so later in the year they can cross-reference the color and grade to the barrels produced for a specific batch.  Daily changes in temperature shift the characteristics.  The bottles on the right are oldest.  The sap started moderately dark, and has become lighter as the season has progressed.  It will turn very dark in the next few weeks as the season winds down.

 

Delivery Updates Spring 2018

We have a few new delivery locations to announce for spring 2018.

Madison NJ Neighborhood Delivery  Open to the public.   Monthly deliveries at 10AM Saturday mornings, starting 7 April 2018.

Westfield Area CSA Delivery  Open to members of the vegetable CSA.  Learn more about joining the group.  The CSA meets weekly for vegetable shares, but we’ll be delivering our products on a monthly basis starting Thursday, 14 June 2018 and continuing until November.  For folks who aren’t part of the CSA, you may order for our Westfield Neighborhood Delivery (next date is Friday morning, 6 April 2018).

North Shore Staten Island CSA Delivery  Open to members of the vegetable CSA.  Learn more about joining the group.  The CSA meets weekly for vegetable shares, but we’ll be delivering our products on a monthly basis starting Thursday, 14 June 2018 and continuing until November.  For folks who aren’t part of the CSA, we don’t have a public neighborhood delivery on the North Shore yet, but we do have a South Staten Island Neighborhood Delivery (next date is Saturday morning, 7 April 2018).

We’ve had some interest in setting up a delivery in the White Plains, NY area.  Delivery would probably be Saturday late afternoon once each month.  We haven’t been able to nail down a suitable location yet.  If you can make a suggestion for a good spot (accessible, parking for our van plus room for people picking up orders, and of course, a willing parking lot owner!), please let me know.

Last item, our Paramus delivery is shifting a little earlier to start at Noon and finish by 1PM.  Next delivery there is Saturday, 7 April 2018.

Follow-up: Frost Free Chicken Waterer

In January I wrote about our attempt at winter-proofing our chicken water.  I wanted to follow up after giving it a real-world test to report that it exceeded my expectations.  On mornings when the temperature dropped below -10 F we had to thaw the drinking nipples with a rag dipped in a bucket of warm water, but in mild winter weather like this week when the overnight temps are in the high single digits or low teens, it doesn’t need any help.  When we had the warm spell in February and early March with nights in the 20s I was able to leave the heater unplugged and just rely on the recirculation and the heat retention in the insulated tote.

Chickens with Winter Drinker

The chickens have managed to destroy the insulation and duct tape immediately adjacent to the nipples, so I’m sure this will require some new insulation and wrapping before next winter.  But knowing chickens and their propensity to peck, I’m actually surprised they were so gentle on it!

New Higher Prices!

Consider this the corollary to my recent article on independent farming, operating outside the vast commodity and investment driven markets.  In order to be better farmers and to better serve you, we’ve decided to raise our prices.  Permit me to do some farmsplaining.

I’ve just finished all the paperwork for the 2017 taxes, and this year we continued our unbroken losing streak by spending a lot more money than we made.  Since we started the farm in 2011, we’ve spent $389,000 more than we’ve received.  I include both capital and expense spending in this figure.  This does not include the purchase price for the farm itself.  All of this deficit has been funded through a number of loans and by working a second full time job.

To keep the farm going, we live a spare lifestyle to divert every spare dollar to the farm.  We try to grow as much of our food as we can.  We do all our own repairs (and we leave a lot of things unrepaired).  We sleep in unheated bedrooms.  We use an icy outhouse rather than fixing the septic system.  Just about everything we have is secondhand.  We don’t have college funds for the kids and we don’t put extra money into the 401k.  I have taken three vacation days off from the farm since 2011. We work long hours in all weather, in sickness and in health.  None of this is mentioned as groveling for pity.  Rachel and I knew what we were in for, and we are OK with the rigors that accompany our lifestyle.  Many other farmers live the same way, and billions of people around the world deal with circumstances far more difficult.  I only share this so our customers can understand our situation, because I believe the plain fact is that we sacrifice more to produce this food than most of our customers do to purchase it.  I don’t say that with any bitterness, but I’m pretty sure that’s the way it is.  (I’ve rewritten these sentences many times to try to avoid being exaggerated or abject or belittling, and I can add all kinds of qualifying statements here, but I’ll let these remarks stand as they are.)

Spending RevenueTrends

Sales are growing and spending is starting to flatten as some of our infrastructure investments pay off, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

The good news for 2017 is that we were able to bring the ratio of total spending to revenue closer in line and we were able to dramatically increase our sales, but the bad news is that we’re probably two years from breaking even and about six years from the point where we’ll be making a minimum wage salary from the farm.

If we are going to farm, we can’t keep subsidizing our customers.  That isn’t sustainable agriculture.  If we raised our prices on all products by $2 per pound we’d break even and be on track to earn a bare bones living from the farm within a year or two, but of course that would place our prices outside the realm of what most customers would consider reasonable.  I think the better approach will be to target a few items with moderate increases, and then to keep working on growing our scale and capacity and using that efficiency to continue lowering our production costs.

Eggs are going to go up.  Even though they are already expensive relative to commodity organic eggs, we’ve always priced them as a loss-leader.  That needs to change.   I’m not aware of any mainstream product marketed in our region that comes close to their attributes:  truly pasture raised, certified Organic feed, and soy free.

I haven’t figured out all the price adjustments, but if you watch our website you’ll see a few things change during the next week or two.

For some people the increases may be hard to absorb, but I feel that if we are going to be honest about the food we produce, that same integrity needs to be reflected in the prices.  And if we want this farm to last to support another generation, we need to be able to give them reason to hope that they can make a living on it, that it isn’t just a sword of noble principals on which they can impale themselves.  A truly sustainable farm must outlast its founders and sustain those who follow.

The Other Food Additive

We get a lot of questions about what is in the food we provide.  “Is it antibiotic free?”  “What about hormones?”  “Do you add preservatives?”  These are all good questions that people should be asking.

There is another question that nobody has ever asked me, but I think people are missing  the most insidious and overlooked additive in the natural/organic/artisanal food market.  Someone should ask me:

“Do your products contain any venture capital dollars?”

I’ve had a front row seat over the recent years observing our pasture/grass fed industry, and it is astounding to see how inevitably the addition of outside investors leads to a weakening of standards.  (I’m not going to name names here.  For one thing I don’t have libel insurance, and for another my point isn’t to single anyone out but rather to look at the overall context.)  With clockwork regularity I’ve watched the cycle repeat.  I’ve seen niche providers, just a single family farm or a group of like-minded farmers start something excellent.  They struggle and persevere and grow to a scale that attracts attention.  There’s the chance to become niche-mainstream, and then there’s the promise that an infusion of capital will allow them to reach the regional and national distribution networks.  And money does the trick, but it works too well.  Within a few years the abstracted brand becomes all-important but the principled approach that built the brand erodes.  Local beef starts coming from Australia, but nobody notices.  Pasture raised hens still have outdoor access, but only on dirt lots.  Grass fed somehow allows for “seasonal grain feeding”.  When the California figs get too expensive, the Turkish ones replace them even if the organic certification is suspect.  Commitment to paying farmers fair prices degenerates, and contracts are abandoned without notice when global markets fluctuate.

I don’t believe that the capitalists are shifty-eyed villains.  Granted, a few are unmitigated jerks.  We have one guy making the rounds here in his luxury car, arriving at Amish farms and tightening the screws on cash-strapped farmers and telling them they can sue him if they don’t like the new terms, knowing full well that Amish can’t conscientiously take part in lawsuits.  But I’m confident that most investors aren’t miserly grouches out of central casting.  And their reasons for investing aren’t as crass or jaded as we’d expect from an episode of Shark Tank.  By and large they get involved because they like the products and they like the story.  They aren’t bad people, but their investment moves the brand into a system where perception is more important than authenticity.  Once one dives into the commodity pool, one either sinks or swims according to commodity rules.

Perhaps the saddest part is that for all the lowering of standards necessary to reach mass markets, many of these brands still fail and end up bankrupt.  Or worse, they are successful and fall prey to a more ironic fate whereby they are bought out by the largest industrial-scale conglomerates, the same ones against which the niche provider set out to differentiate themselves.

I don’t make any claim that our farm is the best farm or that we achieve all our ideals.  If you know us, you know we stumble often.  But as bona fide farmers, we can provide an authentic backstory for the products we sell.  We’re doing this because we love it, and we believe in it, and every day we live it.  That’s what makes real family farming special and utterly different from investor-owned farm brands.

So what’s next?  Maybe I should redesign our carton labels to read “Venture Capital-Free Eggs”.

Turkeys and Trashing a Trashy Trailer

Cue the drumroll…  Announcing that we’ll be raising turkeys this summer!  We hope to have turkeys available for Thanksgiving, and if all goes well, to also offer turkey breasts, legs, and ground turkey.  We’ll be getting a slow start, just 200 turkeys (100 for us, 100 for another farm).  The numbers are big enough to make it worth our time, but small enough that it should allow us to reuse a lot of our chicken equipment without requiring an entirely new set of brooders, intermediate field shelters, and feeders for the turkeys.

However one piece of equipment we’ll need is a big portable range coop suited to the turkeys after they are about eight weeks old.  I’ve been watching Craigslist for a while for the right deal to come along, and this week I think I found it.  We paid $100 for this nasty 35 foot camper trailer with a collapsed roof.

Wilderness Trailer

Classic 1991 color scheme, albeit a little worse for wear.

Thanks to an intrepid friend providing some roadside assistance and moral support (thanks Nate!), we were able to tug this trailer fifty miles back home.  About five miles from the house one of the dry-rotted tires blew up, but we were able to limp the rest of the way home on three wheels.  I’ll check with the tire shops in town for some bald used tires and a set of inner tubes to replace these.

Shredded Tire

This little tire went thumpa-thumpa-thump all the way home.

The scrapyard value of the aluminum skin should offset the cost of the disposal fees for all the wet furniture, wood, and insulation we remove, but the primary value for us is in the frame.  This will become a low-cost and relatively lightweight shelter for the turkeys.  We’ll attach roosting poles every two feet along the frame and install some shade tarps over it.  I’m thinking about welding a four foot extension to the rear so we can use a standard 40 foot recycled billboard tarp for shade.

Kitchenette

The kitchenette.  Can you spot the black cat exploring?  This is a cat’s delight, full of mouse nests.

The first task is to tear it down, and then we’ll build it back up.   I’ll post more pictures of our progress when we actually start making some progress.

Tape Deck

But hey, it comes with a cassette deck.